February 9, 2010
The Columbus Dispatch
By Holly Zachariah
Ohio pharmacists filled 2.7 million prescriptions in 2008 for high-powered painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet, narcotics that contain oxycodone; that’s nearly one for every four people in the state.
They also filled 4.8 million prescriptions for hydrocodone medications such as Vicodin, one for every 2 1/2 people in the state.
And county sheriffs say their jails are full of people who illegally sold or abused those drugs, underscoring what’s quickly regaining attention as a national epidemic.
Just last week, the Adams County sheriff rented vans and shipped his prisoners to community centers throughout his southern Ohio county so he would have room in his jail for 28 people who were rounded up in a prescription-drug sting. The problem is statewide, but southern Ohio is particularly ravaged. It has landed Scioto County on a federal Drug Enforcement Administration watch list of the 10 most-significant places in the country for trafficking in the medications.
The drug abuse is bad in this Appalachian stretch of Ohio for a number of reasons, authorities say:
• Poverty: Scioto County’s unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent, and the drug trade can be lucrative.
• Location: Rt. 23 provides a pipeline to and from Columbus. In addition, the bordering states of Kentucky and West Virginia have significant amounts of prescription-drug abuse. Their proximity allows for doctor- and pharmacy-shopping across state lines, which is harder to detect.
• Apathy: The area has a track record of limited resources and uncooperative elected officials who have refused to help with drug investigations, said William Winsley, director of the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy.
All of those factors have created the perfect environment for illegitimate pain-management clinics — “pill mills” — where prescription drugs are easy to score. Authorities say that as many as eight such clinics could be operating in Scioto County alone, a county of about 74,000 people.
Law enforcers across the state say they don’t have enough money or legal authority to get at the root of the problem — rogue doctors who write the prescriptions and shady pharmacists who fill them.
The pharmacy board says it can’t go after the professionals without the cooperation of authorities willing to investigate, prosecutors willing to file charges and judges willing to take the expensive cases to trial.
The Ohio State Medical Association says there are only a handful of bad doctors running pill mills and it supports efforts to take them down. But the association doesn’t want new laws that would overburden everyone else.